Thursday, January 22, 2015

Pip’s Poetic Vision

I’ve read Great Expectations two-and-a-half times before, but I didn’t remember noticing Pip’s penchant for poetry. He has a poet’s eye, a poet’s interest in words, and a poet’s (at least a romantic poet’s) sensitivity to messages in natural phenomena–Shakespeare’s “books in the running brooks” and “sermons in stones.”

The first ingredient fills Pip’s narrative. His imagination runs as he looks up at the night sky: “And then I looked at the stars, and considered how awful it would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death.” He admits to Estella (rather late in the book) that he sees her in every place and in everything. He does in fact tell the reader so often that he “sees” Estella, it is sometimes difficult to tell when he means us to take the word literally.

Of course he has the second ingredient of a poet’s mind: the ability to express the poetic vision in words. Consider this observation from chapter XIV:
I had believed in the best parlor as a most elegant saloon; I had believed in the front door, as a mysterious portal of the Temple of State whose solemn opening was attended with a sacrifice of roast fowls; I had believed in the kitchen as a chaste through not magnificent apartment; I had believed in the forge as the glowing road to manhood and independence.
In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Pip’s most customary mental operations involve visualizing things where they literally aren’t and analyzing words. After receiving a letter from Mr. Wemmick warning him, “Do Not Go Home,” Pip spends a restless night in an inn occupying his mind with two activities: seeing the words “Do Not Go Home” on the tiles around the fireplace and conjugating the present imperative negative of “to go home”: do not thou go home, let him not go home, etc. Images and words.

Interestingly, his love of poetic expression starts long before he becomes educated through the first installment of his Expectations. When his childhood neighbor recites Collin’s “Ode to the Passions,” Pip critiques both neighbor and poet. In thinking of a popular ditty of his time, he tells the reader that its lyric contains an “amount of Too rul somewhat in excess of the poetry.”

But if the recipe for a poet requires as a final ingredient a connection to truth, Pip ultimately fails. Where Pip thinks he’s seeing through things and interpreting them usefully and correctly, he isn’t. He misinterprets and misjudges his fortune, Miss Havisham, Estella, what it means to be a gentleman, and Magwitch. But then there wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t.

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